“Diversification can occur within an industry. Tribal gaming arms are actively pursuing new revenue streams and embracing digital innovation,” says Native Business Executive Editor Carmen Davis (Makah/Chippewa-Cree/Yakama).
The pandemic spawned a gaming apocalypse — a complete, albeit temporary, shut down of land-based casino gaming across the United States. The word “apocalypse” is often associated exclusively with destruction, but the Greek word actually translates to “revelation.”
Every challenge presents an opportunity to be resourceful and to rise to the occasion.
What has this crisis revealed to us about our Tribal economic foundations and self-sufficiency? How are we being asked to adapt, to evolve? How has the pandemic forced innovation?
The gaming industry had no existing template for how to deal with a global pandemic. Casinos responded to the 2008 recession by marketing to foreign visitors who took advantage of the low dollar to experience entertainment that would cost twice as much in Europe. Obviously, that sort of strategy doesn’t work amid a health crisis. Instead, casino doors were locked, and Indian Country’s most consistent revenue generator disappeared virtually overnight.
Starting in March, more than 500 gaming facilities operated by 246 Tribes in 29 states suspended operations for weeks, and in some cases, months. The financial blow to Tribal economies has been devastating. Even while closed, Tribes were faced with covering the costs required to maintain facilities and in many cases, to sustain a workforce. As Rodney Butler, Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said in May of Foxwoods Resort Casino: “It’s costing us a couple of million a week just to stay closed.” Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the other Tribally owned casino in Connecticut, reopened June 1st, two and half months after closing their doors on March 17th.
The pandemic’s radical, though temporary, wipe out of land-based gaming revenue has drilled home the awareness that we must diversify our Tribal economies. A time will come when there will be another economic downturn or mass disruption to the state of business as we know it — no matter the sector. We cannot rely solely on the monolith of gaming.
This said, diversification also occurs within an industry. Tribal gaming arms are actively pursuing new revenue streams and embracing digital innovation, which has allowed money to keep flowing in.
For instance, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, which launched online sports betting across Pennsylvania in December 2019, continues to heavily diversify into digital gaming. “We are currently involved in digital gaming and when we say digital gaming that is social gaming, sports betting and online gaming in five jurisdictions,” MGE CEO Mario Kontomerkos said.
No longer is the expansion of gaming relegated to a casino itself. Tribes are starting to build digital gaming empires. Mohegan made the decision years ago to invest in its own digital gaming platform development, “which can support many gaming products in the future, in many jurisdictions,” Kontomerkos added.
If the trend continues, patrons will be online to play. The new shelter-at-home lifestyle has increased internet traffic on all fronts, and people are engaging in social gaming, gambling and sports betting more frequently, according to a recent report entitled “Online Gambling Market Global Report 2020-30: COVID-19 Growth and Change.” Research firm Global Poker also observed that the U.S. has witnessed an increase of first-time online poker players by 255% since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.
Agua Caliente Casinos is proactively stepping up to meet its patrons where they are: online. Last week, the Tribal gaming arm announced its partnership with GAN to launch its Play Agua® social casino site and app, accessible on iOS, Android and desktop platforms. The app integrates Agua Caliente’s loyalty membership rewards program, the ACE Club, with the aim of turning casual players into more loyal customers.
For decades, gaming has revived and restored Tribal economies. It will continue to do so. The task at hand is not to move away from gaming, it’s to build on the success of gaming. It’s not to stagnate and cling to what has been achieved, it’s to continue to prosper in the gaming arena while importantly evolving, growing and expanding into new markets — both within and outside of the gaming industry.
Diversification within the gaming industry is something we are excited to explore in greater depth at the upcoming Native Business Virtual Summit 2020. That’s one of many topics that Kate Spilde, Professor at San Diego State University and Endowed Chair of the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming, will delve into: how the emergence of online gaming and sports betting is making the industry’s geographic borders more nebulous, and thus economic opportunities more broad and open-ended.
The Summit will additionally feature Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association, and Gabe Aguilar, President of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, among others, in our Gaming Roundtable: Advancing Indian Gaming Past the Coronavirus Pandemic. These Indian gaming leaders and visionaries will evaluate how we build on the success of gaming, while adapting to a current and post-COVID landscape.
We’ll hear about casino security and screening in the age of COVID-19, innovations and policy updates around sports betting and online gaming, marketing partnerships with professional sports teams, expansion beyond Tribal borders including overseas, loyalty programs, tourism trends, and more.
Whether we like it or not, times are changing. Business will never return to “normal,” because we only move forward, imprinted and made more resilient by the trials and tribulations we’ve endured. How we choose to adapt creates our new reality and influences our future.
“Embracing Innovation to Empower Indian Country” is the theme of the Native Business Virtual Summit 2020 broadcast, which will be live streamed November 17-20, 2020, from noon to 3:30 pm CST, from the Native Business production studios. I encourage you to register now at NativeBusinessSummit.com to join us in thought-provoking and inspiring conversation over the course of four days sure to enrich you both personally and professionally.
The world looks different. The gaming industry is evolving with it.
And you, as well, are forever altered by these times. How are you meeting disruption with disruption? How are you daring to build something even better? How are you innovating?
Catastrophic times require our perseverance. They also clear the way for revelation, for renaissance and for innovation — the same way our people have responded to hardship since time immemorial.
We are the original innovators. And together we will emerge bigger and better than before.